As often happens now, the conversation flowed around me. The others in it were all young enough to be my children or grandchildren, but I was no one’s kin. When courtesy requires, the young will make token attempts to include their own immediate ancestors in their circle. But that effort has always had its limits; and those limits have been stretched considerably of late by the technology that has narrowed and condensed generational frames of reference into microcosms of experience as fleeting as a Text or a Tweet.
But still, unoffended, I listened. Writers always listen. For us, listening is the equivalent of filter feeding. Like sperm whales straining the water for plankton, those of us who build and obsess with the written world are always listening for the turn of a phrase, the lilt of a voice, the idea or anecdote that will instruct, enlighten, or intrigue—or, best of all, explode into the image or thought that seeds a story.
So I listened as the discourse turned to childhood games. There was talk from one child of the 80s about playing Star Wars. The conversation turned inevitably to technological advancements in the age old enterprise of conning one’s parents re: homework assignments. General acclaim in this area went to a Millennial, now a lawyer, who was never in several years caught reshuffling and recycling a set of math assignments via the use of what I gathered was an online program intended to allow parents to better monitor their offspring’s productivity in that area…
The stories went back and forth. I listened, said nothing, and did my own remembering.
The children I played with—the child I was– played War.
Okinawa is a small place. Even 60 years ago, when this pic was taken, it was possible to get most of it, shooting south to north.
It was the war that our fathers had lately fought. Very lately, now that I think of it.
The Battle of Okinawa began on April 1, 1945, and lasted for 82 mortal days. American casualties ran to around 45,000. The Japanese did worse–77,000 plus –and the Okinawans worst of all–between 50,000 and 150,000 dead, mostly non-combatants and reluctant draftees. My Air Force father pulled a three-year hitch in Okinawa in the late 50s, and we Baby Boomers, knowing little of history and understanding less, played our games across the still healing battlefield of an island with the approximate landmass of LA.
In retrospect, I don’t know what my parents–any of our parents– were thinking when they let us loose there. The sub-tropical forests and the deep swards of head-high habu grass (named for its frequent inhabitant, a really badass venomous snake called the habu), were full of unexploded ordnance, abandoned bunkers, shell holes, and other unhealthy possibilities. There were empty Okinawan tombs as big as small houses, each such desecration a testament to the horrors inflicted on a gentle people who revere their ancestors, and would never willingly neglect them.
Sea Cave. Original gouache miniature by LM Johnson, 10.09.16
It was a playground surreal in its significance. Once, on one of our normal family excursions to the beach, I wondered off alone and crawled into a low sea cave whose last occupants remained there. At least, their skeletons did. The floor was strewn with human bones. I suppose these were the remains of Japanese soldiers. The Okinawan dead would have been lovingly retrieved and buried by living kin or reverent countrymen. The Japanese dead, I suspect, would have gotten no such regard from the people upon whom Japanese megalomania had invited the disaster of war—a concept, so I’ve heard, that doesn’t exist in the Okinawan language.
This might have been the same strange beach where I found myself tagging beside my father, looking at the countless small bits of oxidized metal that the shallow waves washed at our feet. Okinawa has some beautiful white sand beaches, but this one was rocky and silent, and those bits of metal were everywhere.
My father said nothing; but he stooped once to pick something from the debris. When he opened his hand, he was holding an unspent bullet.
It was, he told me, a tracer round intended to light a night time landing. I wanted to keep it, but he tossed it away, explaining that it might still go off, and was therefore dangerous. We kept walking, once more in silence, looking down at the metal whose rough edges and hard lines had long since been eaten away by the sea.
Only a lot of years later was I able to guess what we were walking through and imagine what had been behind my father’s silence.
My father’s war had been a very personal one for basic survival. It had begun in late 1941 in the Philippines with the ill-advised retreat to the Bataan peninsula and the starving nightmare of the Death March. It had ended four years later with liberation from a POW camp in northern Japan.
Medals and promotions don’t normally accrue from such things—although I do have his Purple Heart. I know, as I know myself, that he would rather a thousand times have been in on this beach landing and in the deafening thick of battle than in the silent hellish depths of that POW camp, unable to fight, unable to act, wasting, waiting, dying by minutes and inches.
It’s some game, this thing called war.